All Shorenstein APARC News News May 7, 2021

The Unfolding Relationship Between Human Workers and Robots in an Aging World

On the Freakonomics Radio podcast, Karen Eggleston and Yong Suk Lee discuss their research into the effects of robots on staffing in Japanese nursing homes.
Autonomous caregiver robot is holding a insulin syringe, giving it to an senior adult woman, concept ambient assisted living
Miriam Doerr via Getty

Does the new wave of digital technologies portend a future in which robots and automation increasingly replace workers and destroy livelihoods? In one of the first studies of service sector robots, APARC experts find evidence to offset dystopian predictions of robot job replacement.

The study's co-authors are Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP) Director Karen Eggleston, Korea Program Deputy Director Yong Suk Lee, and University of Tokyo health economist Toshiaki Iizuka, our former visiting scholar. They set out to examine how robots affect labor, productivity, and quality of care in Japanese nursing homes. Their findings indicate that robot adoption may not be detrimental to labor, and may help address the challenges of rapidly aging societies.

Eggleston and Lee joined the Freakonomics Radio podcast host Stephen J. Dubner to discuss their research and policy recommendations. Listen (starting at 26:23):

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The study was recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and in AHPP's working paper series. It is part of a research project by Eggleston, Lee, and Iizuka that explores the impact of robots on nursing home care in Japan and the implications of robotic technologies adoption in aging societies.

Japan is the world runner-up in robot adoption in the workforce on a per-capita basis, following South Korea. Due to its population age structure, Japan is also leading the world in the demographic transition. It, therefore, grapples with an overall declining working-age population and, in turn, with an increasing demand for long-term care along with a declining supply of workers to staff that long-term care. 

Unlike industrial robots, the robots in Japanese nursing homes work alongside humans. They are collaborative robots or “cobots” that can complement human labor rather than replace it. “They’re not only aware, physically, of a human’s presence, but they can productively interact with a human,” says Eggleston.

The study by Eggleston, Lee, and Iizuka indicates that robot adoption is associated with a higher headcount of care workers in nursing homes, although these additional care workers are non-regular caregivers employed on flexible contracts. Nursing homes with robots also appeared to have higher management quality and were better able to reduce the burden on care workers.

In another study, Lee examined the impact of robots on jobs in the manufacturing sector. There too, he found that robots were initially replacing workers, but that as the technology matured, they became more collaborative.

Could every smart machine become a cobot?

“I think there really is a potential for technology to make our lives better,” says Eggleston. “But I’m not of the opinion that it’s going to automatically happen. I think it comes down to the choices that we make, particularly in policy, on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society,” she concludes.


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